Young gun: Michael Downer

Michael Downer is the third generation of his family to work the Murdoch Hill farm, in the Adelaide Hills, but during his time within the business he has changed the focus for the family. Daniel Whyntie reports.

The family property used to be as much about cattle as it was focussed on growing vines, but Michael Downer’s Artisan Series has built on the reputation of the Murdoch Hill wines and marked a turning point in the farming business.
Downer has applied the lessons learnt from his travels and set out to create wines that would set him apart; wines that have earned him the Young Gun Of Wine ‘winemakers’ choice’ award two years running. 

There’s no better compliment than that of your competitors, and Downer is on a hot streak. His Artisan Series has now won him back-to-back recognition at the Young Gun Of Wine (YGOW) industry awards.
“It is really an honour to be selected as the winemakers’ choice for the YGOW, it was a huge thrill they enjoyed the wines. I am just trying to make pure wines that are reflective of the fruit I source whilst displaying drinkability, so hopefully this is what the others were seeing,” Downer said.

After studying Oenology Downer embarked on a globe-trotting adventure, touring the great wine regions of the world and picking up some experience doing vintages in Barolo, Italy and around Australia, with a few stints in Great Western, Victoria and around the Adelaide Hills.
The Artisan Series was a departure from the established Murdoch Hill wine range and gave Downer the chance to experiment with what he had learnt about the craft.

“The Artisan Series came about from my return to the family vineyard back in 2012, where I wanted to use some of the idea’s I had gained from my travels. I felt introducing a new series where I had more freedom to express my ideas and to tell an individual story was important,” Downer said.

The labels tell the story Downer’s grandfather, who established the Murdoch Hill farm back in 1939. Downer developed the idea of paying tribute with his older brother and graphic designer Andrew.
“Andrew had been working wine brands as a designer for a couple of years. We wanted to bring it back to our history; to link the history, the farm and the wine,” Downer said.
“Each wine is named after different horse drawn carriages, my grandfather T. E. Downer was a collector of these carriages of which we still have many at the farm. That timeless technique of transportation, the horse and carriage, fit really well with our old world traditional style winemaking.”

Although Downer has being making his name through the changes he has brought to the winery, his pride in his connection to the family history shines through.
The brothers work together one day a week, when Andrew has some time away from designing and can help out with labels and tastings. And with plans for a full-time cellar door, Downer would love to bring the family back to the farm full time, if his brother can put up with him.

“I would love to be working together. He’s really talented and full of great ideas, I can be a bit bossy but it would be real positive to be working together,” Downer said.
“I am a third-generation farmer, my grandfather bought this property back in the early 1930s and my father was an innovator working with various different fields of agriculture. Murdoch Hill is very much a family owned and operated business and is certainly rewarding to be part of that and offer something new to the business.”

The connection he has with the family property means there has never been much thought given to going off and working for another winery.
“I am very fortunate to be giving the opportunity and to be entrusted by the family. I was very young when returning home and have learnt so much since,” Downer said.

The property as a bit of a connection to the odd gamble, with Downer’s grandfather stepping in to buy the farm when the previous owners fell into receivership – after spending too much time at the bookies betting on horses. T. E. was far more interested in the horses when they were attached to carriages, but the family’s move into the winemaking business has proved to be a safer bet.
“Having a small-scale winery has allowed me to experiment with loads of different ideas and is critical in allowing the best parcels to make the premium grade.”

Across the past five years things have changed dramatically at Murdoch Hill. When Michael first returned home, he spent most of his time looking after the cattle and the vineyard side – rather than making wines.
“When I grew up we had 300 head of cattle. Mum and dad planted the vineyard in 1998 with Sauvignon Blanc, supplying the local market. Then stretched into Cabernet and Chardonnay, then into Shiraz. It was the late 90s era of a lot of new plantings, we had 50 acres and sold most of the fruit.”

Today Downer takes about a third of what is grown on the property and spends most of his time on his own wines. He reckons the willingness to adapt comes from his dad, Charlie – who has a keen eye for opportunity and readiness to try anything.
“Dad’s always done a mix of some sort; we’ve had potatoes, tulips nursery. There was always something different, then investors from town came out with the opportunity, we got the right consultants in and made sure we picked the right varieties,” Downer said. “We’re a farming family so understand how it works. We’ve had some tough years, some low yield years, ups and downs, but the cattle price wasn’t great then either so it always looked like a great investment.”

Downer has been on a mission to systematically improve the vineyard, the winemaking and the finished products since taking over the reins, starting with the first few barrels of the Artisan Series.
“I have converted most the vineyard to cane pruning and started a program to eradicate Eutypa. This year we are trialling an undervine mower to free us of any herbicide use, over the coming years I will be looking into converting the vineyard to more organic sustainable vineyard practices,” he said.
“I started changing our fruit source to growers in the higher parts of the (Adelaide) Hills for Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier, and I now want to improve the material in our vineyard with improved clones and new varieties so more fruit from the vineyard can go into the Murdoch Hill wines.”

While his first steps with the Artisan Series wines were intuitive, the success has shown him the way forward.
“Making those first wines and getting recognition for the shift in style I had taken was a huge highlight along with my first trophy for Shiraz at the local wine show. The evolution and transition of the core Murdoch Hill wines was more challenging as it stemmed away from the core wine business my family introduced and shifted to a more dynamic market.”

Downer is now the winemaker behind both the Artisan Series and the core range of Murdoch Hill wines, allowing him to better control both directions in a way that compliments each other; one left of centre, the other more mainstream.
“I wanted to significantly improve the quality to not only make high quality wines but also give people drinkable wine styles. I wanted people to hear and talk about the wines Murdoch Hill is producing, bring some energy and excitement to the business,” he said.
He uses a minimalistic approach when styling his Artisan Series. The handmade wines are made in small batches using a diverse range of vineyard sites throughout the Adelaide Hills.
“These wines are made in a less conventional approach, reflecting either unique vineyards or wine styles from the Adelaide Hills,” Downer said.

“I am looking to make vibrant, nervy wines that showcase the vineyard or style.
“Firstly looking at harvesting much earlier to keep natural acidity and freshness in mind, gentle extraction or infusion techniques with high level of whole bunch resulting in much more vibrant but gentle wines for early enjoyment, to retain this freshness I am looking at largely old barrel maturation for a shorter period of time and the wines are bottled earlier with freshness in mind.
“Selling those first releases of the Artisan Series was tough, however it was imperative to gain an understanding of the markets and what the consumers either in retail or on premise were looking for. I think spending time on the ground in those early days really set us up to find a good distribution and understand the market,” he said.